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Crossbench political donations reform could force real-time disclosures

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A group of crossbench federal politicians are calling for political donations to be more tightly regulated.
crossbench political donations

A group of crossbench federal politicians are calling for political donations to be more tightly regulated.

Any Australian person, company, or organisation can donate money to a political party or election campaign.

There’s no cap on how much they can donate, and no restrictions on the types of organisations that can make political donations. Information about where donations come from is also limited.

Several MPs and Senators want tougher regulations for political donations, with a suite of reforms up for debate in Canberra.

Donations

In the lead-up to an election, candidates and parties can spend significant amounts on advertising, social media, events, and travel.

Federal political parties and independent candidates spent a combined total of nearly $420 million on the 2022 election. Around 95% of those expenses came from donations and other financial contributions, like fundraising events.

Donations can also be made outside of election periods. In 2023, donations to political parties and independents totalled $259 million.

Donor list

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) – the national agency responsible for running elections – publishes a list of political donations once a year, on 1 February.

However, not every political donation is included in this list. For example, at the 2022 election, the AEC did not disclose donations below $14,500.

This benchmark increases with inflation (rising prices). Therefore, it means for the 2023/24 financial year, the AEC will not disclose donations below $16,300.

Reforms

A group of MPs and Senators, including independents and minor parties like the Greens, will introduce draft laws to reform political donations.

Led by Independent MP Kate Chaney, the plan includes capping individual donations and banning some industries from making donations.

New transparency measures would also see the AEC publish the source of all donations above $1000. It would share this data in real time, instead of once a year. Chaney said voters deserve to know “who has the ear of people making decisions”.

Donation limits

In 2022, the biggest individual political donation was made by billionaire Clive Palmer. He pledged about $117 million to his United Australia Party. It won one Senate seat in Victoria.

The proposed political donation reforms would limit how much an individual donor can contribute to an election campaign. If passed, this would be limited to about $1.5 million at the next election.

As a result, this means donation cap could vary election to election, depending on the amount of public funding allocated to the AEC.

Industry bans

The proposal would ban businesses in the gambling, tobacco, alcohol, and fossil fuel industries from making political donations.

AEC data shows betting company Tabcorp and the owner of Sydney’s Star Casino donated more than $200,000 to major parties in 2021/22.

Mining giant Adani gave more than $100,000 to Queensland’s Liberal National Party. BP, McDonald’s, and Shell contributed to a total of $14.9 million in donations made by the Business Council.

What now?

The reforms will be tabled in Parliament next week.

Kate Chaney told TDA elections should be a competition of “ideas”, not finances.

The measures also have broad support from independent and Greens MPs and Senators.

The Government hasn’t indicated if it will support the changes. However, it’s rare for bills tabled by non-government MPs and Senators to pass Parliament.

Responses

A spokesperson for Cabinet Minister Don Farrell, whose portfolio includes elections management, told TDA: “It’s clear that our system needs to be protected, including from billionaires who try to influence our elections.”

The government hasn‘t yet responded to a Parliamentary inquiry into federal elections, handed down in November.

A Coalition spokesperson told TDA the party will wait for the government to respond to that inquiry, before considering its position “through the normal party processes”.

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